By Kenny Kemp
Kenny Kemp is the author of eight books, all of which deal with the spiritual quest, including The Wise Man Returns, published in 2011. He lives in Salt Lake City.
Or right-click here to download the audio file: The Returning Missionary: Only a Dream?
More than a distant land
Over a shining sea
More than the steaming green
More than the shining eyes
Well, they tell me
It’s only a dream in Rio
Nothing could be as sweet as it seems
On this very first day down
I served my mission in Latin America in the 1970s, during Spencer W. Kimball’s “Lengthen Your Stride” campaign. In a June 1975 talk to new mission presidents he said:
“Brethren, the spirit of this work is urgency, and we must imbue . . . our Saints with the spirit of now. now. We are not justified in waiting for the natural, slow process of bringing people into the Church. We must move rather hastily.”
That hastiness led to pressure on missionaries to baptize more people. Kimball assigned numerical baptism goals that were multiples of current baptismal rates. In our region, we were instructed to baptize six people per companionship per month.
This was quite a challenge, considering that I passed my first three months in the mission field with just one baptism. But my companion and I were convinced of President Kimball’s prophetic call. We dutifully pasted a large “6” on our pension wall and began praying and working to achieve that goal.
And we did. In a short period of time, my mission became one of the top baptizing in the world. The number six occupied all my thoughts and desires. As the end of a month approached, my stomach would churn, not only from the intestinal bugs I’d picked up, but from the overwhelming pressure to achieve this goal—a commandment we had been given by God’s prophet. We dared not fail.
And we did not. My companionships achieved the goal every month, and the rewards followed: leadership callings, celebratory dinners, proud parents, and, most important, the unmatched joy of saving souls. Heady stuff.
I became known as a “closer.” I had the ability to meet with investigators, ascertain their objections to baptism, overcome them, and get them in the water. I rarely served in an area longer than three months. Once I had exhausted the current investigator list, I would be moved to another city, where I would apply my closing skills again. As a result, I rose quickly through the cursus honorum to zone leader. My success was inarguable—the numbers proved it. I had the respect of the other missionaries, my mission president, and, presumably, the Lord.
But it wasn’t all about numbers: I tried to baptize people who were genuinely prepared. We were encouraged to baptize complete families, but Latin men are notorious philanderers, and we soon learned the double meaning of the word compromiso. It refers not only to an event one must attend, but also denotes marital infidelity. Thus, many fathers were unworthy of baptism, which left mothers and children as the only available candidates for Church membership.
But mostly, missionaries baptized children. I tried to resist this trend, but the fact that other companionships had no compunction about baptizing children as young as eight— with no parent or sibling to accompany them—made my resolve seem . . . unproductive.
These were not the “baseball baptisms” of England or the “soccer baptisms” of Brazil. Nevertheless, young American men were an attraction to children—they flocked after us. We were an anomaly in the slums where we worked: healthy, educated, rich—a natural source of interest to sickly, uneducated, impoverished children who had few decent male role models. We thought we were merely sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. But after I came home, I began to reflect upon the unintended proselyting we had also done.
I had seen hundreds of people join the Church, the vast majority of whom I was and still am proud to have been a part of their conversions. But I also baptized people who were not really prepared. Oh, they knew the answers to the baptismal questions—we saw to that. They kept the Word of Wisdom (a few days was considered sufficient) and had promised to pay tithing. But I knew the chances of their remaining steadfast in the Kingdom were small. I assuaged my misgivings with the “free agency” argument: they knew what they were getting into.
What I did not comprehend then was that these people joined the Church for a myriad of reasons, only one of which was their belief that it was true. They also joined to please the missionaries; to become a part of an organization that promised American ideals; to become like us: rich, successful, happy, and special. No wonder we baptized so many people—the combination of the plan of salvation and the American success ethic is a potent enticement.
During my mission exit interview, I expressed concerns about the quality of the baptisms we had just discussed in zone leader meeting, where missionaries bragged about their huge numbers, showing no remorse about baptizing children without even a sibling accompanying them, much less a parent. The mission president asked me about my first baptism. I knew little about her other than her name; at that time I had only been in the country a couple of weeks and understood little Spanish. But I knew she was a soltera—a young single woman.
“Tell me about one of your recent baptisms,” he asked.
“Just a few days ago,” I said proudly, “we baptized a family: mom, dad, and a bunch of kids. We baptized Dad first, gave him the priesthood, then he baptized his wife and kids.”
The mission president smiled. “Every missionary must learn first that he can baptize. Then he learns how to baptize quality.”
Caught up as I was in salesmanship techniques, his answer sufficed. I wanted to believe his logic because I worshiped him. He was everything I wanted to be: educated, successful, and charismatic. He had a beautiful wife and great kids. My concerns were, in his corporate lingo, about “method” and not “structure.”
But it was not long before his glib answer fell apart. I had done as he had taught me, so why did I feel ashamed? My companions felt the same way. At BYU after my mission, I ran into many of them. To a man, they regretted the pressure tactics and focus on numbers we had used. To a man.
As a result of this guilt, I generally avoided mission reunions. Fifteen years after my mission, I went to one and was stunned that the mission president had not changed at all—he was still preaching the use of social pressure to “lace” investigators into the Church and manipulations designed to put people into an emotional state where they would feel the Spirit. Surely, he seemed to argue, if God wanted my investigator in the Church, then I should do everything short of lying to them to achieve his will. Right?
Wrong again. I don’t know many things for sure, but one thing I’ve learned is that God is patient. His timeline is not my timeline; so pressuring others to conform to my timeline is against his will, a transparent attempt to vitiate their free agency.
In short, combining the unequaled power of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the seductiveness of the American success gospel with these simple souls’ lack of education and poverty, gives you a powerful product and an ignorant target—they will buy what you are selling.
But many had buyer’s remorse. A missionary’s worst fear is that their baptism will go inactive after we’ve gone. We had all seen it: most people lasted just a few weeks in the Church after “their” elder was transferred, notwithstanding our retention techniques. But it was relatively easy to put these concerns out of our minds. After all, we had been moved to a new town with a new companion and new baptismal goals. No one in our new area knew what we’d just done. Except us.
All these reasons—the age and family status of our baptisms, our cultural imperialism, manipulative pressure tactics, and the widespread conversion to missionaries and not the Church—led me to do what many missionaries do once I got home: I quietly put my mission behind me. Guilt is a powerful incentive to leave the past in the rearview mirror.
They remind me
Son, have you so soon forgotten?
Often as not it’s rotten inside
And the mask soon slips away
Strange taste of a tropical fruit
Romantic language of the Portuguese
Melody on a wooden flute
Samba floating in the summer breeze
“It’s been more than thirty years,” he said, “and you haven’t been back?”
“No,” I said and let the silence trail out.
“You gotta go,” he enthused. “It will change your life.”
I sighed. Elder Rawlins (not his real name) was a bishop, a corporate leader, and a committed family man. He’d been back to the mission field for the dedication of the temple.
“I’m not so sure,” I said, but I was a little curious. Just because everyone else’s baptisms went inactive didn’t mean mine did. After all, they were special. They had been prepared. They had truly believed when they had been baptized.
“I am,” said Rawlins. “Come on. Let’s go see what the Lord has done.”
I was curious. I had never stopped thinking about the people I baptized. But I was afraid that they had been converted to me and not the Church, and that when I left, so did they. That would make my two years a pointless endeavor. I didn’t want to face that.
In the end, personal issues prevented Elder Rawlins from going, so I went alone. I had been invited on a film shoot to act as translator, and my mission field was on the way home. A week there should be enough to find out what had happened since I’d been there thirty-four years ago.
I arrived in mid-afternoon and was met by a young man I’d baptized (well, he had been young then). He and his family were the most golden investigators Elder Rawlins and I had ever taught. They were (almost) a complete family: a mother, three children, and grandma. Dad was working in the States. The young man I remembered had grown into a charismatic Church leader. He’d flown up the ladder of leadership callings and had recently completed three years as a mission president in a nearby country. He enveloped me in a fuerte abrazo, tears in his eyes. “I am so proud to have you back in our country,” he said. “Welcome home.”
I looked around. The airport was new: all glass and chrome. We walked across a polished terrazzo floor under stylish fluorescent lights. The parking lot was full of late model cars. The only thing I recognized was the humidity—it was, as it always had been, astonishing. My shirt was soaked before the car’s air conditioning got up to speed.
My friend (we’ll call him Carlos) smiled. “It’s not too hot today.”
Carlos was successful. The minivan he drove (he had a large family—six children—that magic number again) was new, clean, and had a CD player. He wore, even on a Saturday, a suit with a white shirt and tie. I wore a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts. I felt like a teenager whose dad was driving him home after the dance.
We took the freeway. I goggled. The last time I was here, there were no freeways or shopping malls or skyscrapers. The city was fairly clean, though crowded as ever. Billboards promoted McDonalds, Burger King, cell phones, Hollywood films, sexy female attire, and cars.
When I was here last, there was one American-style fast food joint in the entire country: a pallid knock-off called “Burger Quin.” We missionaries went there once and, severely disappointed, never returned. So we ate what the people ate: fried plátano, pineapple, spongy white cheese, rice, jerky-like beef, and potatoes. And we gained weight.
We went to Carlos’s house where I met his family. Five kids were still at home—the oldest was at BYU-Idaho—and they were remarkable. No sullenness. No snarkiness between siblings and no disgust at their parents or other adults. They were a poster family for LDS values. And it was not an act: there was love in that household. Carlos and his family had actually done it—they were living the gospel and reaping the rewards. The feeling in his home was better than in the home I’d grown up in, a home with five generations of LDS history, two returned-missionary parents, and an all-enveloping church culture informing it. They had done it in just one generation and in an environment so hostile to LDS values that their success was a true miracle.
A party was awaiting me at the mission president’s home. He had been an elder in one of my zones. He was still a quiet, unassuming man. He had married a sister from the mission, and here they were, back again, presiding.
When we entered the high-rise apartment, I reacquainted myself with a dozen men I had baptized. My companion and I had called them the “Sons of Helaman” and outfitted them with white shirts, ties, and teaching binders. They had brought scores of their friends to us to be baptized. I often received credit for baptizing people I had only met at the baptismal interview—because of the efforts of those young men, now graying and paunchy, surrounding me.
Now they were the leaders of the Church. They had all been bishops and stake leaders. One was a patriarch. Several taught Institute. One had been a regional representative. One was the temple recorder. Carlos had been a mission president.
We hugged amid tears of joy. Like me, they were older, but their lives had been hard—many looked tired and worn. They had given their youth to the building up of the Kingdom, and their faces showed the strain; yet they also glowed with happiness and pride.
We ate a traditional dinner. I sampled dishes I had not tasted in decades. I met their wives and heard stories about their children and grandchildren. We took photos, and I basked in the joy of reunion with people who once were as young and idealistic as I had been.
The next morning, Carlos took me to church. During my mission, I never attended services in a real chapel—all we had were rented buildings. Carlos had proudly told me as he loaned me a suit, that in this city alone, there were over thirty chapels. I shook my head in wonder. Thirty chapels meant a dozen stakes, probably.
“And the temple,” he said proudly.
We entered the chapel and sat. Carlos’s family took up an entire row, just as mine had when I was a kid. I stood out like a sore thumb; the only gringo present. Everyone smiled, knowing intuitively that I was Carlos’s missionary.
I looked around. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that the tiny seeds we had sown would result in such a harvest. The bishopric sat on the stand. Priests occupied the sacrament table. A dozen deacons faced them on the first pew. All Latinos, all in white shirts and ties. The organist played the prelude on a real piano. The women wore modest dresses, as did their daughters. The air conditioning hummed.
Carlos had lent me a set of his scriptures. I opened them. A quadruple combination in Spanish—something I had not seen before.
It had been ten years since I’d attended church, twenty since I was really active. My own scriptures sat on a shelf at home between Mormon Origins and Journey of Souls. Apparently, I had come five thousand miles to be reactivated. I opened my mind and heart. Be here now, I whispered to myself. Let whatever wants in, in.
It was fast Sunday, and Carlos’s children bore their testimonies, each one thanking me for sharing the gospel with their father. Carlos’s wife did the same. Even his inactive brother bore testimony, looking at me directly and affirming that he knew the Church was true.
At that moment, I received a testimony: the gospel had indeed changed these people’s lives. The country was still poor, but those who had taken the Church seriously had apparently been blessed with prosperity. They were healthy. Their families were intact. They loved each other. And they loved me for being a conduit for all these wonderful things.
Throughout the meeting, I fought back tears. I took the sacrament, for though I was no longer an active Mormon, I was still a sincere follower of Jesus of Nazareth and was witnessing his most profound miracle: the changing of hearts.
Spiritually exhausted, we returned home for lunch and a family home evening with Carlos’s bunch. The kids relished the family time, and though Carlos tended to pontificate when he spoke, his self-deprecating humor softened the edge of his no-nonsense pronouncements. I admired him.
It’s all right; you can stay asleep
You can close your eyes
You can trust the people of paradise
To call your keeper and to tender your goodbyes
Oh, what a night!
Wonderful one in a million night
Frozen fire, Brazilian stars
Oh, holy Southern Cross
That evening, Carlos and I attended a noche de hogar (family night) at the home of another family Elder Rawlins and I had baptized. The event was arranged by Amelia, who was just a toddler when her parents and siblings joined the Church. In the decades since, they had been in and out of activity, but everyone still had fond memories of us, and Amelia had been instrumental in getting several of her siblings and cousins back into Church activity.
As always, gifts were given. I came unprepared, having spent the previous three weeks camping and hiking, but no one seemed concerned by my lack of reciprocity. It was enough, they said, that I was there with them.
We sang songs and ate and drank warm soda. The air conditioning struggled with so many people in the small cement house. Amelia’s aunt, whom we also baptized, just sat on the couch and cried with joy. I was taken aback to be the object of so much love. But I knew it was not me they were thanking—it was God.
A few days later, one of our Sons of Helaman took me to see the temple, which perched on a hill overlooking the city. It was the most beautiful building I had seen in the country. The spotless exterior, the perfectly manicured grounds, the beautiful lights—all seemed out of place here, especially given the fact that we had passed through a slum to get to it.
My guide proudly told me how the temple came to be in this location. It seems another site in another city had originally been chosen, but for various reasons, the temple had not been built there. When an apostle came down a few years ago, he did not like the location and began searching for another. He flew here alone and asked a taxi driver to show him around. They wound up on this empty hillside. The apostle got out of the taxi, went out onto the garbage-strewn slope, knelt, and prayed. He got an answer: the temple was to be built here.
The story continued: disgusted at the litter in the city, the apostle called up the city engineer, whom he apparently knew from college in the States, and demanded that before the Church built a temple here, they had to clean up the streets.
“That’s why the city is so clean now,” said my friend proudly.
I soon discovered that even though they lived thousands of miles from Salt Lake City, my friends here knew Church leaders quite well. Indeed, Carlos had apostles’ phone numbers programmed into his cell phone.
It made sense. These were the frontline troops and when the generals came, they naturally spent time with the local commanders. It struck me as interesting that these men shared close friendships with the same Church leaders most Utahans would not approach at a local supermarket out of respect and awe.
That meant they would also know these leaders as men. By this time, they must have separated personalities from doctrine. Perhaps, instead of deflecting questions about my Church involvement, I could be honest about my spiritual journey. After all, it was honesty that brought me here three decades ago to share what I believed then.
This visit should be no different. I had what I considered “further light and knowledge” to share with them, though I was still unsure about their readiness.
Later on, take me way downtown in a tin can
I can’t come down from the bandstand
I’m never thrown for such a loss when they say:
Quando a nossa mãe acordar, andaremos ao sol
Quando a nossa mãe acordar, cantará pelo sertão
Quando a nossa mãe acordar, todos os fihos saberão
Todos os fihios saberão e regozilarão
Carlos took me to his office at the Institute of Religion, an adjunct to a stake center building. Prior to his stint as a mission president, he had been in charge of the Institute program in the country. Now he was back, teaching classes and, I gathered, still drawing a paycheck from the Church—he even had a company car.
As time went by and I became reacquainted with more and more people I had known, a pattern started to materialize. Almost all of the Church leaders also worked in some capacity for the Church. Many were paid to run the temple.
It seems having a temple in your city is not just a spiritual blessing.
One of the main reasons I wanted to come back was to visit a small hamlet I helped open for the work. Nestled in the coastal mountains amidst sprawling coffee plantations and dense tropical forests, the town I remembered was a jumble of decrepit plaster and cane buildings, dirt streets, intermittent electricity, and undrinkable water. My companion and I lived in a tiny room at the rear of the rented building we used as a chapel. We bathed in rainwater collected off the corrugated tin roof. During our time together, we baptized just one woman, a school teacher.
I set out on a road trip with two friends, eager to see the changes. The forest still pressed in on the asphalt road, but the road itself was in good condition, filled with newer cars. The cramped, wooden buses had been replaced by immense, modern buses with high-backed seats and air conditioning.
The town itself now overflowed its natural bowl. Houses filled the surrounding hillsides. Streets were paved. There were two LDS chapels. I had my picture taken in front of one, grateful that the warm drizzle kept my tears from showing.
We tried to find the old rented chapel, but nothing looked familiar. The only recognizable structures were the yellow cathedral fronting the plaza and an old iron cupola in the park. Everything else had changed.
Except the campesinos—the country people. They looked the same. These poor workers lived out in the countryside and only came to town for purchases. Their clothing was just as old and tattered as I remembered, and they stood in sharp contrast to the stylish town-dwellers. Unlike the country I once knew, when there was basically one class of people—the poor—now there were two: the poor and the indigent.
Something else had not changed. The ubiquitous military still manned the provincial borders, checking papers and looking sullen, though their vehicles and guns were new. The country had democratized after I left the mission, but had recently slipped back into social democracy with a president who enjoyed punishing the rich—the very people who employed the poor in the plantations surrounding this town. I also saw more glass shards topping compound walls than I remembered. Every building seemed to have bars on the windows.
I saw a child on a door stoop, watching us pass, huge eyes in a brown face, his baby teeth black with rot. I met his baleful gaze until we turned the corner and he disappeared. He still haunts me as I write this.
We traveled down a coastal highway along white sandy playas with phenomenal surf. We looked for the beach where I had once stood in the water, my slacks rolled up to my knees, gazing longingly at the perfect left break before me, without a surfboard.
“Don’t do it, Elder,” my companion had said, laughing.
“I had no idea how committed I was until this moment,” I said as I returned to shore. “This is killing me. Let’s go.”
Now, traveling along those same beaches, I saw hotels, beach umbrellas, and vendors pedaling giant tricycles of wares on the hard sand. Same sun, same sand, same water, but now filled with tourists. Gringos lounged in cafés. Others carried surfboards toward pristine beaches.
After dark, we entered a poor village where a parade was in progress, celebrating the area’s patron saint. At the ratty central park, dignitaries sat stiffly on a raised wooden dais. Children in costumes paraded in front of their parents. We watched as a tuneless band marched by, followed by the boys’ drum corps—a cacophony of discordant sound.
But these were campesinos too, and their poverty belied their smiles. I started out photographing the children, but soon took to snapping shots of their mothers and fathers, tired people who were grateful for brief respite from their difficult lives. The men’s pants were patched, the women’s blouses stained. Only the children felt no lack. Tonight, with face paint and sateen costumes, they were rich.
We arrived at the country’s poshest beach resort, a town made up almost entirely of high-rise condos overlooking sandy beaches. We sat under an umbrella sipping sodas and munching coconut shards. And after thirty-four years of suspense, I swam in an ocean as warm as a bathtub. I floated on my back, looking up at the clouds that always gathered in the late morning, promising a muggy afternoon. But at this moment, everything was perfect.
Carlos asked me to speak to the students at the Institute of Religion. A large group gathered to listen to me discuss education. I was, after all, the recipient of more than my fair share of higher learning. This was my opportunity to warn them of the trap.
I spoke of finding one’s passion in life to children whose parents had never even considered such a thing. Historically, life was hard here—how could it also be fulfilling? But how quickly things change. Prosperity yields leisure; leisure yields self-examination; self-examination yields doubt; doubt yields a yearning for answers. In one short generation, their questions had gone from, “Will I have dinner?” to “Will I be happy?” And what a can of worms that question opens.
I expected at least a few questions about the collision of the Church and modern life, but got none. There was no evidence that any of them questioned the answers they were receiving from their lesson manuals.
As we drove home afterward, I asked Carlos if the Mark Hofmann debacle was common knowledge here. He shook his head. How about the Lamanite DNA controversy? No. Church history issues? Nothing. “What about Church influence on politics?”
He looked at me, perplexed. “What influence?”
Caught in the rays of the rising sun
On the run from the soldier’s gun
Shouting out loud from the angry crowd
The mild, the wild and the hungry child
The mask began to slip. Certainly, Church members who adopted traditional “gringo” qualities such as arriving on time, doing a full day’s work, personal honesty, and respect for the law—all imports that had piggy-backed on the gospel message we taught—excelled in a culture of sloth and dishonesty.
If they did not work for the Church, the LDS adults I met were invariably professionals, stand-outs in their personal and public lives. But none engaged in politics, a calling that in American culture often follows financial security. Generally, once you have enough to eat, you then look around to see if everyone else has food.
My friends had spent their lives sacrificing for the Church. They had also spent their lives seeking financial security. But in a country with such startling divisions between the haves and the have-nots, where governmental corruption cried out for courageous, honest public servants, none of these capable people had answered the call.
Several flatly rejected the idea, saying the system was impossibly corrupt; they were better off just caring for those they loved. In other words, they had become like most Americans: politics was a job someone else would do.
But their country was not America, a nation basically on auto-pilot because of our core values. In the U.S., when we hear about someone finding and returning a wallet, complete with cash, to the owner, we yawn. But my Latino friends scoffed. “Never happens,” said one. “Who can afford a wallet?” laughed another.
I sighed. We Americans can afford to be lazy; our system is not yet teetering on the brink of moral collapse. But their nascent democracy is just emerging from the jungle of totalitarianism and could be reclaimed unless brave people give as much energy to it as our forefathers did to ours. But these people were focusing on their families. Oh, and moving to the United States whenever possible—preferably Utah.
I asked about the ubiquitous poverty. Wasn’t it depressing to see it everywhere? Wasn’t it sad that having broken glass atop their walls and bars on their windows was the norm?
Everyone shrugged. They are fond of quoting Jesus: “The poor you shall always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). When I said that was a comment specific to an individual wishing to do a kindness to Jesus and not a ratification of poverty, the point was lost on them.
“I am poor,” said one man. “Compared to you.”
When everyone is poor, no one is rich, so no one feels obligated to help another.
This tentative discussion led us to talking about our spiritual journeys. I still held back, but they talked openly about their experiences with the Church. It was eye-opening.
It seemed everyone had either been inactive for a period of years or had been excommunicated and later re-baptized. Of course, everyone I saw on my visit was currently active, but I was told that it was not uncommon for people to come and go in the Church with regularity. Active members did not judge those who were currently outside the Church, for they themselves had been there. Even my friend Carlos, the former mission president, confided that he had been inactive for five years after his mission. My jaw dropped. “Why?” I asked, expecting his issues with the Church to be doctrinal, like mine were.
“I was alone,” he said. “I was depressed. But then I met my wife and got back on track.”
Carlos’s issues with the Church had nothing to do with the gospel; like many formerly inactive Mormons, he believed the doctrine but at that time was simply unwilling or unable to live it. Its truthfulness was never in question, as it has been for me for decades.
I opted for silence. The time was still not right for me to share my experiences.
We met another old friend. Way back when, the elders had lived with his family. His mother was the kindest landlady I ever had. We called her “Mamita,” and coming home after a long day of proselyting was like . . . coming home. She treated us like sons, dispensing appropriate portions of support and castigation.
Her younger son, Juan, now in his fifties, had served in many Church positions, ending up as a regional representative, after which—he told me without a trace of embarrassment—he had gone inactive for fifteen years. He had only recently returned to the Church with his second wife and two young children. He didn’t disclose much about his first marriage, and I imagined his problems had been of the predictable sort.
Reading my mind, Juan stiffened. “I have never been unfaithful. To anyone.” By that, I understood that he included the Lord in that assertion.
“Go on,” I said.
Juan then told me one of the most disheartening stories I have ever heard. While serving as a regional representative, he was awakened late one night by a phone call from Salt Lake. He was to get over to the mission home immediately. When he arrived, he found the mission president and two gringo elders in a panic. Shortly before, the elders, driving the mission van, had accidentally run over a young girl they had not seen in the darkness, nearly killing her. But instead of helping her, they had fled the scene of the accident on foot. It was only a matter of time before the police would arrive at the mission home to arrest them.
On the phone again with Salt Lake, Juan asked what to do. He was instructed to go to the hospital where the girl had been taken. He was to tell the girl’s father that the Church would take care of all her medical bills if he would sign a legal release exonerating the Church and the elders from liability.
Juan hung up the phone and asked the mission president to accompany him to the hospital. The president declined, saying he was taking the elders to the airport. “Why?” asked Juan.
The mission president, also a gringo, said, “So they don’t rot in a jail down here for the rest of their lives!”
They parted ways. Juan went to the hospital and advanced the girl’s father money so she could be treated. For a few days, the father balked at signing the release, and the Church dutifully paid for her treatments. But when he finally signed the document, all Church payments stopped. As far as Juan knew, no one from the Church had ever followed up on her condition. The elders were never held accountable for their actions.
“Did she survive?” I asked.
“Kind of,” said Juan. “I see her around. She’s really messed up. That’s why I left the Church. I saw what was really in the hearts of the leaders. I didn’t go back for fifteen years.”
He told me his marriage broke up after this experience, and many people believed that was why he had left. “But I never cheated on her,” he said flatly. “I left because of what I’d seen.”
“But why return, then?”
“Because I got married again and my new wife, who was not a Mormon, wanted to baptize our child in the Catholic Church. I couldn’t do that, so I started going back to our church.”
Leaving the Church because of the weaknesses of its leaders was something I’d been inoculated against as a child. Of course men made mistakes. Moses’ pride prevented him from entering Canaan. Peter denied Jesus. Oliver Cowdery betrayed Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was unfaithful to Emma. What’s new?
When I asked Juan about the Church itself, he affirmed that it was true.
Later, I asked Carlos about Juan’s story, hoping he could verify it. “It’s true,” he said. “But everyone thought he got kicked out of the Church because of a compromiso. Only a few of us knew the truth.”
“Did his experience call your own beliefs into question?” I asked.
Carlos shook his head. “The Church is true. The leaders, sometimes, are not.”
This opened the door to a deeper discussion I had wanted to have with Carlos. I respected his intelligence and wanted to share my spiritual journey with him. When we were alone for a couple of hours, I opened up. “I never came back to visit because I was ashamed,” I said.
“Because of the way we baptized. The pressure and manipulation. The numbers game. That’s also why I didn’t come to visit you while you were a mission president. My mission president was the MTC president in the same city where you were serving. It was inevitable that we would meet, and I knew I’d speak my mind. Or worse.” I paused. “I was angry at him because he should have known better. We were kids; he was an adult. He pressured us for numbers because his superiors pressured him, and back then he was running for general authority. After all, his best friend was a Seventy—why not him?”
“He is also ashamed,” said Carlos. I looked up, surprised. Carlos continued. “Once we were with him, and someone reported a positive thing about his time as mission president. His wife said, ‘See? Something good did come out of our time there!’” Carlos looked at me. “If you talk to him, I think he will admit his mistakes. I know he feels bad about what he did.”
I’ll tell you
It’s more than a dream in Rio
I was there on the very day
And my heart came back alive
A friend took me to the country’s proudest recent accomplishment, a new bayside embarcadero with beautiful shops, restaurants, and sculpture that extended several kilometers along the once filthy and dangerous portside docks. It was now clean and safe, becoming a popular evening stroll for locals and visitors alike.
At the eastern end of the malecón rose a hill, atop which stood an old lighthouse. Several hundred numbered steps wound up the steep hillside, crowded on either side by brightly painted jumbles of homes, shops, and restaurants. We scaled the steps, enjoying the pretty façades. I knew, however, that just behind those colorful walls lived people barely scratching out an existence. But they kept their doors closed so as not to scare the tourists away.
Standing on the lighthouse summit, we had a spectacular view of the city, a city I now recognized only by its surrounding hills. The downtown boasted many glass and steel skyscrapers. City lights sparkled in the humid dusk. The streets were cleaner, thanks to an LDS apostle.
I looked north, toward an area we called Las Afueras—the Outlands—back then an endless, flat barrio of mud streets and cane shacks where the missionaries baptized thousands.
I remember walking through a ghetto like it in another town with my senior companion. He was close to going home; I was still full of naïve enthusiasm. As I surveyed the heartbreaking poverty, I was filled with righteous indignation. “Elder,” I said, noting a man snoring just outside his hovel, the stench of cheap gin emanating from him like heat from a fire, “these people really need the gospel.”
My companion nodded. “Yes. But first they need a revolution.”
On my final day in the country, Juan came over to Carlos’s home to pick me up for a service project. I agreed, happy to be of help. But Juan was reluctant to tell me what kind of service we were projecting.
He had no car, so we began walking. Gaping potholes in the sidewalks and streets were receptacles for garbage, a kind of natural accretion that eventually minimized the damage to axle or ankle. Smoking diesel busses passed, jammed with people. The sky was a flat panel of gray humidity.
We approached a good-sized hill that was cluttered with tin-roofed cane shacks. I spent most of my two years in neighborhoods just like this. We were greeted by the sounds of chickens crowing and dogs barking. The smells of fried banana and human sweat activated old memories, good and bad, filling me with nostalgia and regret.
We stopped before a wreck of a home. It looked like it would slide off the steep hill at any moment. Juan introduced me to the owner, a woman, probably in her mid-thirties, but looking closer to my age. She had a couple of children. As usual, there was no husband.
“We are here to tear down a house,” said Juan, leading me to the backyard, where we saw the remnants of another one-room shack that truly had one foot in the demolition pile. The roof and three walls were missing, and there was a great hole in the sloping floor. The floorboards were black with decades of traffic and cooking grease. With one hammer and an old crowbar, we were supposed to take it apart.
As we began prying boards loose, sci-fi-sized cockroaches scurried back into the shadows. Clusters of immense snails nestled in the cool wet earth around the support pillars. The woman had us gather up the snails—she had a medicinal use for them. I did not inquire as to what that use might be.
Juan and I labored all morning. The owner brought us lemonade, but beyond that she and her teenaged son merely watched us work. The many rusty nails made me glad for at least one of my travel inoculations. I had left the world of hand sanitizers and had entered a hot zone of dangerous microbes. I had no gloves.
As the woodpile grew, I asked the woman what she was going to do with it. She said they would drag it down to an open area at the base of the hill and burn it. Who would do that? I asked. Some neighborhood boys, she replied. I said I’d give her some money to buy the boys Cokes for their efforts.
By mid-afternoon we were finished. The woman was rude to me as we left, and I was perplexed. We had served her all day; why was she acting like this?
On our way back to Carlos’s home, we stopped in the shade of a small park. It was incredibly humid, and we were both soaked with sweat. Juan turned to me. “You offended her,” he said.
I’d done everything I could to not offend anyone on this trip. “What did I do?”
“You promised her money for the boys, and then you didn’t give it to her.”
I took out my wallet and counted out several bills. “Tell her I’m sorry. I forgot.”
He took the money with such disgust that my embarrassment at my minor infraction vanished and was replaced by memories of hundreds of like situations from my mission. Someone here always had a hand out, expecting the rich gringos to fill it. We almost always did. But the flat expectation of charity, which did not bother me thirty years ago, angered me now. I set my jaw, looking at Juan as he casually pocketed the money. I knew those bills would never make it to the boys dragging the wood to the bottom of the hill. I trusted Juan to give it to the woman, but she would use it for her necessities.
I did not begrudge her that. I only wished that just once, someone would ask if there was something they could do for me in return for the money they demanded I give them. But no, I owed them generosity because fate had made them poor and worthy and me rich and unworthy.
I did not say any of this to Juan. I just told him I hoped the money helped.